An Amarillo photographer's personal journey through the Dust Bowl- with past and present eyes.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Part 3 : On location with Dayton Duncan and Buddy Squires - The Dust Bowl

Dayton Duncan is passionate about history. You get a sense of it - in his writing, the productions he's worked on and his lectures but there's a particular scene in The National Parks - Americas' Best Idea that illustrates it perfectly.

He's talking about his son and how they encountered a wild goat on a path in one of our national parks and how his son reacted and wrote about as being one of the best days of his life.

Dayton's voice catches - as he describes the memory. In that brief emotional and very human moment he defines how (in a very personal way)important it is to be stewards of the land and to save it not for just ourselves but for our sons and daughters and grandchildren that they might too experience the wonder that is the natural world.

When I saw that scene I thought to myself - I am very - very lucky indeed to have a part (albeit a small one) in the production of The Dust Bowl.

The sun is a long time setting in Northeastern New Mexico. Except for the mountains to the southeast it - flat -almost treeless and desolate. It's a wonder settlers thought of making a go of it here. It's not in the middle of nowhere - but you can see nowhere from there.

It is also beautiful in it's starkness. People not from these parts think it's amazing that from Amarillo one can see a storm brewing in a neighboring state be it Oklahoma or New Mexico. One can actually see into another time zone from hundreds of miles away.

Dayton is friendly and explains to me the shot they are working on. "You recognize this don't you? This is one of your locations. You helped us find it. It's perfect for illustrating the isolation of the High Plains. Can you imagine what it would have been like to live out here?"

To quote Timothy Egan's book The Worst Hard Time: More than a quarter-million people fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Looking around now, it may seem that most people just hurried through the southern plains and left in horror. Not much was heard about the people who stayed behind, for lack of money or lack of sense, the people who hunkered down out of loyalty or stubbornness, who believed in tomorrow because it was all they had in the bank. Yet most people living in the center of the Dust Bowl, about two thirds of the population in the 1930 never left during that hard decade.

It was a lost world then: It is a lost world now.

I try. I also think of what it might have been like to experience one of the "Black Rollers" the dust storms that rolled out off this side of the Rockies blotting out the sun and choking off the air. It must have looked like Hell on Earth and felt that way too.

Why would anyone stay if they didn't have to?

Cinematographer Buddy squires is busy - taking a meter reading of the sunset. He suddenly picks up his tripod - camera and all and runs fifty yard closer to the old house he is framing. Everyone sprints - because it is "magic time" when during the dusk the light is fleetingly perfect. In minutes the light will be gone.

Dayton takes notes while he talks. Despite it being crunch time - he's open and friendly. Ken Hanson and I suddenly feel like we are in school again - a master's class as he expounds on the history of the area.

"Dust - dust and more dust. How did they endure? What did they see here?" he asks.

I venture a guess as I look at the sky - "I'm guessing a blank slate on which to make there mark." I say.

"Exactly!" he replies.

I glance over at Ken Hanson, he's using his Sony video camera to photograph Buddy - well - photographing. I decide to take a few shots as well, digging in my bag for my well-worn but trusty Nikon. I enter the menus and turn off the beep not wanting it to distract.

"Can I shoot a few shots? I'll be quiet and as unobtrusive as a field mouse" I ask Duncan.

He smiles at my request - "Sure - we aren't recording audio so you can yell if you want to."

And as if in cue we here a pack of coyotes yelping - as if they were waiting for their cue.

"Of course that would have been perfect if we were." Dayton says.

Buddy Squires - who has been quiet except for some technical chatter with an assistant suddenly says, "This isn't going to work - we need to be back about fifty feet further."

Without warning he picks up the camera off the tripod, and again we go running back toward the east. Quickly he quickly remounts the camera and lines up the shot - an assistant dusts off the front filter.

Buddy takes another meter reading. The sun is setting fast. It's time to shoot.

"Want to take a look?" Buddy asks me. "If you do - hurry." he ads.

I take a quick peak through the viewfinder. It's looking great.

"Do you approve?" he asks.

Buddy Squires asking me if I approve? He's being gracious, I tell myself.

"Shoot that baby!" I reply - as if he needed my approval.

For the next forty minutes he films. The sun sets and the glow slowly goes away, fading from bright orange to cobalt blue. We chat - they pack the gear away and it's time to go our separate ways.

Ken & I take the opportunity to take turns having our photos taken with Dayton. He graciously allows and puts up with it.

"Now - I have an extremely important favor to ask you." he says.

"Anything." I reply.

At this point if he asked me to jump off a cliff I'd probaly do it.

He takes me over to the SUV they came in and lifts out a large trunk.

"In this trunk is the bulk of our Dust Bowl photography and represents about thirty-thousand dollars worth of shooting. Could you please take it back to Amarillo tonight and deliver it to KACV so they can ship it to us? We can't take it on the plane because the x-rays will fog the film and quite frankly - we don't trust them to keep from loosing it."

"Sure!" I answer, "No problem." Ken echoes.

We carefully haul the box over to Ken's car - open the hatch and secure it in the back. Only then when it is in our possession does the preciousness of the cargo and the trust Dayton Duncan is putting on us two relative strangers sinks in.

We shake hands and part ways.

As we wind our way along the dark roads back to Amarillo, every few minutes I glance back at the cargo - making sure it's safe. I can't help but envision the worst - a car wreck that destroys the box - thieves stealing the film - stupid stuff - like a fire consuming my apartment while I slept.

I tell myself - It's going to be a long sleepless night as long as that film is in my trust.

The next morning, without incident I deliver the film to KACV. I call Florentine to confirm the film has been delivered and it will be FedExed that day.

Over the last two years I keep in touch with Dayton and Florentine films. I send them weather images often and a few of the Dust Bowl images I created for this blog. I also shoot some b-roll HD footage of wheat fields and sunsets they requested - but I don't know if it will make it into the film or end up on the cutting room floor. If it does - I'll be thrilled - if not - that's life. I'm just happy for my small part in the production.

The Dust Bowl will air in November of this year - some two years after the project started. I cannot wait to see the finished product.

In the meantime I started this blog. I was inspired by Dayton Duncan to dig a little more into the amazing history of this area. I plan to keep it going as long as there is interest. I now find myself seeing Dust Bowl type scenes everywhere - especially during our long time of record drought.

When the "haboobs" roll in - I flash back to the Dirty 30s and get a sense of what it must have been like to live through the dusters.

Then - a few weeks ago I get a gift in the mail. It is an invite to a premier of sorts - dinner with Ken Burns & Dayton Duncan - here in Amarillo! I can't believe I'm on the guest list, It is a true honor.

I am permitted a guest - and I call Ken. he's thrilled too.

We decide - in the spirit of The Dust Bowl two arrive in style - in Ken's Model T. I'll post details on the dinner soon. Stay tuned.

In the meantime I hope you enjoy this blog and will be compelled to watch The Dust Bowl. I also highly recommend you buy a copy of The Worst Hard Time. It's a great read.

More soon!

-Steve Douglass



Ken Burns on "The Dust Bowl"

NEWS OK: Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns knows a thing or two about history — which makes him something of an expert on memory, as well.

Filmmaker Ken Burns is producing a four-hour documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” for PBS.

“One thing you learn after awhile in this history business is you think that the past is really far away, and in many cases it is,” Burns said in a recent phone interview. “But memory, the thing that recalls the past, is present.

“When someone breaks down and cries over the death of a little baby sister who died of the dust pneumonia ... it's happening to them now. The feelings are now. The memories of the wind and the dust and the sand rattling like an evil spirit against their window is now.

“Watching the sand dribble from the ceiling onto your tabletop and being able to etch with your finger a little painting, a child's painting, into the dust on your dinner table is now.”

This month, Burns will debut footage from his latest project, “The Dust Bowl,” at the Oklahoma History Center.

The full two-part, four-hour documentary is set to air on PBS in November.

The Dust Bowl lasted as much as a decade in some areas, spanning the 1930s, a confluence of bad luck and poor planning that created “the greatest man-made ecological disaster in American history,” Burns said.

Farmers overworked their fields, replacing the native deep-rooted grasses with shallower crops, and did little to stop wind erosion. A years-long drought parched the soil.

The wind-fueled dust storms swept the loose earth from the Southern Plains toward the East Coast and out into the Atlantic Ocean.

“There was a moment after several storms when FDR (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) in the White House in Washington, D.C., could move his index finger across his desk in the Oval Office and pick up Oklahoma on his fingertips,” Burns said.

The hub of the disaster was Boise City in Cimarron County, the westernmost county in the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Neighboring areas — the Texas Panhandle, southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico — also were among the hardest hit.

The massive dust storms peaked on April 14, 1935, a day that became known as Black Sunday. Towering columns of dust choked out the daylight, reducing visibility to a few feet in areas throughout the Dust Bowl.

“A young itinerant singer found himself in Pampa, Texas, in the midst of Black Sunday ... and everybody all around him, God-fearing Christians all, were certain that this was the end of the world,” Burns said. “And so he looked up and wrote down a song called ‘So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh.' His name was Woody Guthrie.”

Burns and his producing partner, Dayton Duncan, knew little about the Dust Bowl before they read Timothy Egan's compelling book, “The Worst Hard Time.”

(In an equally compelling review of the book, The New York Times said: “Racing at 50 miles an hour, the Dust Bowl storms of the 1930s blasted paint off buildings; soil crushed trees, dented cars and drifted into 50-foot dunes. Tsunamis of grasshoppers devoured anything that drought, hail and tornadoes had spared. ... Families couldn't huddle together for warmth or love: the static electricity would knock them down.

Children died of dust pneumonia, and livestock suffocated on dirt, their insides packed with soil. Women hung wet sheets in windows, taped doors and stuffed cracks with rags. None of this really worked. Housecleaning, in this era, was performed with a shovel.”)

The book piqued their interest, and Burns and Dayton resolved to collect oral histories from the survivors and put them together into a film.

The documentary includes interviews with 26 survivors and the written accounts of two women who lived through the Dust Bowl years.

“Unlike any other story that we've told,” Burns said, “this is almost completely a bottom-up story, told by the folks who experienced it, their own memories. That's what makes this particularly special for us.”

Burns' other films have won 12 Emmy Awards and two Oscar nominations.
His work includes “The Civil War,” “Baseball, The Tenth Inning,” “The War,” “Jazz” and “The West,” among others.

He was heralded in The Baltimore Sun newspaper as “not only the greatest documentarian of the day, but also the most influential filmmaker period.”
The late historian Stephen Ambrose said, “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.”
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